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Snakes Alive!

Loving God  •  Sermon  •  Submitted
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Scripture

Numbers 21:4–9 NRSV
From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.

Introduction

Snakes why did it have to be snakes? Does this make your skin crawl a bit?
In a recent Harris Poll 36% of people said that the thing they feared most were snakes. Throughout history people have feared and worshipped snakes. They have been symbols of chaos and evil, healing and life, and even wisdom. I guess this is pretty true to life. There are good snakes and bad snakes. You shouldn’t kill every snake you see. Even the poisonous ones help to keep the rodent population down. However, for the most part we have vilified snakes. We call people we don’t trust“a snake in the grass” or we used to say if some guy tries to pick up your date that he was snaking your date. Snakes have gotten a bad rap over the centuries including, even, the Bible. How many of you in here today are afraid of snakes? Well, then that poll was about right!
Genesis 3:14–15 NRSV
The Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, cursed are you among all animals and among all wild creatures; upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.”
Genesis 3:14-15.

Background

Numbers, kinda like a snake has a bad reputation too. For Christians, it is one of the least read books of the Bible. That’s too bad because scholars will tell you it is one of the richest books both theologically and just in terms of different genres of literature. It is bookended by censuses. The first being those who wandered, the second at the end of the book of those that were poised to enter the promised land. This is why it is also known to the Jews as “The Book of Wanderings.” If covers the 40 years of wandering before they enter the promised land. Today we are looking at what is really kind of a puzzling story. Let’s try to unpack it and see what the Holy Spirit has to say to us today.

Exegesis

Snakes in the ancient near east were most often worshipped. From the pharaoh’s head dress with the spitting cobra to the flying snakes of Isaiah, they played a role in the ancient religions. The area where this even occurred is the same area, that during World War 1 the British Army had a big problem with snakes. Other people have traveled on foot in the area have reported the same thing, that the area was over run with snakes.
The snakes were sent because the people continued to complain, and this time it isn’t just about Moses, for the first time they blame God! This is the fifth and final time they complain and as punishment God sends snakes. I talked a little about immediate retribution a few weeks ago and how Jesus debunked the idea that God does things like this. However, here it is. I don’t know why God would do something like this and this morning I am not going to try to explain it. Because it can’t be. We are going to have to struggle with this. There is even more strangeness in this passage because the Hebrew word seraphim is used. A seraphim is an order of angel, it is a flying snake. This is a “fiery serpent” or snake. However, nearly all the scholars agree that this language was used to describe the bite of the snake. That it burned the victim when bit.
One thing we can definitely say here, is that the Israelites brought this on themselves. Just before this they were fighting a Canaanite King named Arad. Things weren’t going well in the battle and they sought God’s help. and it says,
Numbers 21:3 NRSV
The Lord listened to the voice of Israel, and handed over the Canaanites; and they utterly destroyed them and their towns; so the place was called Hormah.
This occurs in the three verses right before the rebellion described in 4 through 9! God has just helped them defeat an enemy, but that’s not good enough. They have to traverse around the land of Edom. That resulted in a much longer trip towards the promised land. They grew impatient. I like the way the King James puts this:
Numbers 21:4 KJV 1900
And they journeyed from mount Hor by the way of the Red sea, to compass the land of Edom: and the soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way.
s not good enough.
The SOUL of the people was much discouraged. Yes, folks what we have here is a heart problem, a soul problem, a spiritual problem. They are telling God: “Yep, that victory was great, but what have you done for us lately?” This food you are giving us, well we’re tired of it, we have been eating it forever. We had it better in Egypt! You have sent us out here to die in this desert!What we have at stake here is a trust issue. if there is no trust there is no faith. They obviously believe in God because they are complaining to him, but they have no trust in him. You cannot have faith without trust. Jesus brother James made a great comment on this:
James 2:19 NRSV
You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder.
Yep, the demons believe too. So this lack of trust has consequences and the snakes come. And boy do they. It seems almost at once the people say, “No we’re sorry we repent! Moses go to God and plead for us and help us. And so Moses does. God doesn’t take the serpents away, but he provides a way to be healed. He follows God’s instructions and makes a copper, and it would have been mostly copper, though the word bronze is used, snake and puts it on a pole. if you’re bit all you have to do is look up to the bronze serpent and you are healed.
Now this is a difficult thing. It seems like magic and the rabbis had a hard time interpreting just what was going on here. What this looks like is something called homeopathic or sympathetic magic. This is the belief that the fate of an object can be governed by manipulation of its exact image.” Is this magic? The rabbis really struggled with this. In fact they said when the person looked upward, they were looking toward YHWH not the snake, for it is YHWH who heals, not a bronze image of the snake. In fact in the apocryphal book The Wisdom of Solomon we read this:
Wisdom of Solomon
Wisdom of Solomon 16:4–8 NRSV
For it was necessary that upon those oppressors inescapable want should come, while to these others it was merely shown how their enemies were being tormented. For when the terrible rage of wild animals came upon your people and they were being destroyed by the bites of writhing serpents, your wrath did not continue to the end; they were troubled for a little while as a warning, and received a symbol of deliverance to remind them of your law’s command. For the one who turned toward it was saved, not by the thing that was beheld, but by you, the Savior of all. And by this also you convinced our enemies that it is you who deliver from every evil.
Wisdom of Solomon 16:6–7 NRSV
they were troubled for a little while as a warning, and received a symbol of deliverance to remind them of your law’s command. For the one who turned toward it was saved, not by the thing that was beheld, but by you, the Savior of all.
Look what’s here: “a symbol of deliverance” For the one who turned toward it was saved, not by the thing that was beheld, but by you the Savior of all.
Now. let’s fast forward to a famous conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus:
John 3:14–15 NRSV
And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
John 3
Jesus too, sees the raised up bronze serpent as a precursor to him being raised on the cross. Just like the Israelites when God saved them from the snakes, he didn't take the snakes away, but provided a way of healing in their suffering.
God doesn’t always take the thing away that cause our problems, but if we look up to him salvation is ours. God doesn’t always cure, but he always heals. I think this quote from martin Luther King Sums this up nicely this is from his eulogy of the children that died from the bombing of a church in Birmingham
These children—unoffending, innocent, and beautiful—were the victims of one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity. And so my friends, they did not die in vain. God still has a way of wringing good out of evil. And history has proven over and over again that unmerited suffering is redemptive. The innocent blood of these little girls may well serve as a redemptive force that will bring new light to this dark city.
God can ring good out of evil. God can make suffering redemptive. He did this with the serpent that was raised up so those that were bit could turn to God. He did it by lifting up the Son of man. this is the difference between healing and curing. The snake is also a symbol of healing. God always heals, but he doesn’t alway remove the source of our problems.The families of those children who died in this bombing will always have a spot, a wound if you will from the loss of their children, just as the families from Parkland, or families of the victims from Las Vegas, or the bombing not so long ago.
Whether it be snakes, bombs, or bullets, God can use these evil acts redemptively. He can wring good out of them and we are his partner in doing this. it is up to us to see that it happens.
God can ring god out of evil. God can make suffering redemptive. He did this with the serpent that was raised up so those that were bit could turn to God. He did it by lifting up the Son of man. this is the difference between healing and curing. The snake is also a symbol of healing. God always heals, but he doesn’t alway remove the source of our problems.The families of those children who died in this bombing will always have a spot, a wound if you will from the loss of their children, just as the families from Parkland, or families of the victims from Las Vegas, or the bombing not so long ago.
Let us look up at the cross, where the son of Man is lifted up, and claim or healing and share it with the world that so needs it!
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